High-Functioning Anxiety: What It Is and How to Cope

young man suffering from anxiety

Most people think of those with anxiety as visibly anxious, overwhelmed, and distressed. But, while many of the over 40 million Americans struggling with anxiety experience the disorder in this way, many others do not. In fact, many people with anxiety are able to function at work, at school, or in other aspects of their lives. If you’ve received a diagnosis of high-functioning anxiety, you’re probably even proud of it.

At the same time, many of us also use functioning as a metric of being okay. If someone can do their work, take care of their family, and otherwise handle their responsibilities, are they not okay? Often, the answer is no. If you’re functioning and doing the things you have to do and then not being able to function to enjoy yourself or relax, or worse, using substances to cope with stress afterwards, you’re far from okay. In fact, high-functioning anxiety is often “functioning” on in terms of productivity, not in terms of quality of life.

What is High-Functioning Anxiety?

High functioning anxiety is the condition of having a diagnosable anxiety disorder which does not get in the way of your ability to complete responsibilities. In other cases, “high functioning anxiety” falls under either mild impairment anxiety or subclinical anxiety. In others, the individual is very good at masking and resilient enough to do work anyway. They may function and appear normal and happy on the outside. On the inside, they may be worried, obsessive over details, stressed, and scared. They may be unable to relax, sleep, or eat because of recurrent worry and overthinking.

While people in these situations are able to do work and often do it to a level of perfection, they don’t often experience these achievements as being positive. Instead, things are never good enough, the next thing will always go wrong, something is always looming that has to be worried about. The end result is a low quality of life and mental health that normally continues to worsen over the years.

People with anxiety experience symptoms including:

  • Apprehension or dread in unwarranted situations
  • Tenseness
  • Jumpiness
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Vigilance

You’ll also frequently experience physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, sweating, tremors, twitching, headaches, upset stomach, diarrhea, frequent urination, fatigue, and insomnia or hypersomnia.

More importantly, symptoms of anxiety may not show up everywhere. For example, general anxiety disorder means you do experience worry and anxiety about everything. However, many people experience anxiety in social situations but not at home. Others experience significant panic attacks, usually triggered by anxiety-inducing events, phobias, or triggers, such as traffic jams after you’ve had a traffic accident. The more localized your anxiety disorder, the more likely you’ll be able to function in other parts of your life.

Finally, not all anxiety symptoms are the same. If your symptoms are mild, atypical, brief, or you’re very good at masking them, you might qualify as someone with “subclinical” anxiety. That doesn’t change that it severely impacts your quality of life, but it may impact your diagnosis or how it affects your life.

woman suffering from anxiety seeks medical advice

How To Cope with High Functioning Anxiety

The most important thing for anyone experiencing symptoms of anxiety is to seek out medical support. That may start with a discussion with your doctor. It might also mean talking to your therapist – especially if you already have a diagnosis.

Getting treatment is still the best step to take. In most cases, that should mean moving into behavioral therapy and counseling designed around high functioning anxiety.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – CBT is one of the leading treatments used for anxiety. Here, the therapy works to help patients break negative thought cycles and downward spirals by breaking those patterns into behaviors and helping the patient to build new behaviors. By breaking cycles of negative thinking, recognizing patterns of overthinking, and recognizing self-defeating behavior, patients can learn to step outside of those patterns and replace them. That won’t cure anxiety but it can greatly improve quality of life. For example, CBT often asks people to confront triggers, to learn anxiety management symptoms, and to put work into identifying the underlying causes behind triggers and behaviors.

Coping Mechanisms – Most treatment involves learning coping mechanisms, including stress management, physical relaxation, and learning to direct or control focus and attention. Here, tactics like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Therapy, mindfulness, yoga, light exercise, breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation are all common. However, other tools like expectation management, time management, keeping the home and space clean, eating nutritious meals, and keeping up with exercise are also often part of managing your mood, energy levels, and mental health.

Group Therapy – Approaching anxiety from the perspective of your peers and other people with similar problems can be remarkably enlightening in helping you to figure out how to deal with those problems. For that reason, group therapy and counseling is almost always a good idea. While it won’t cure anxiety, it will give you insight into what others are doing, how they’re dealing, and how similar symptoms impact their own lives.

Medication – If your anxiety symptoms are impacting your quality of life and psychotherapy doesn’t help enough, you will be prescribed medication. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and other anti-depressants are intended to regulate your mood long-term to help you avoid experiencing extreme symptoms.

Eventually, most anxiety treatment programs should include a mix of several tactics, with stress management, anxiety management, and behavioral therapy involved.

Getting Help with High Functioning Anxiety

While it’s always a good idea to seek out treatment for anxiety, you should make sure that the clinic you approach is able to treat high functioning anxiety. Why? Anxiety treatment often has a focus on enabling productivity and task completion – which are blockers for many people with anxiety. If you have high functioning anxiety, you can start with emotional regulation, with coping mechanisms, and with techniques to improve breathing and heart rate so you calm down physically and reduce stress.

If you or a loved one is struggling, the staff at Compassion Recovery can help. We offer anxiety mental health treatment, fully customized to the individual, with changes in the program, approach, and focus based on individual problems, progress, and worries. That makes our program a perfect fit for individuals with high functioning anxiety, because we can assess where you’re at, how much you’re masking versus what doesn’t affect you as much and design a treatment program around those needs. Just because you can function doesn’t mean anxiety isn’t impacting your quality of life, and we can help you to learn coping mechanisms, reduce symptoms, and get your life back.

If you or you loved one need help with mental health treatment, drug rehab, or alcohol rehab Compassion Recovery Center is here to help. Contact us to ask about our mental health programs and how we can support your specific requirements as you move into treatment.

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